It is reported that when John Adams first saw John Trumball's famous painting of the signing of the Declaration of Independence he remarked that the picture was not at all how things really looked. The painting makes it appear as though the process of writing the document was a rather routine and tranquil group effort. In fact, the process that led to the formation, writing, and acceptance of the Declaration was a partisan and contentious battle of arguments and clashing philosophies.
Yet somehow, from that crucible of mixed beliefs, disparate philosophies, and vested political interests a document of profound clarity of purpose and philosophy emerged that has withstood the challenges of time and politics for over 200 years and created what can arguably be called the greatest democracy in history.
A similar process has been repeating itself here in Texas. Granted, this process will not impact the world to the extent of the Declaration of Independence, but it certainly has the potential of giving birth to a meaningful revolution of a different sort.
Thirty-five superintendents have been gathering and debating the state of education in Texas. Calling themselves The Public Education Visioning Institute, they have engaged in what one participant called "truly courageous conversations". These leaders of districts - which combined represent over 1.2 million students - have met to discuss, argue, debate, challenge, and begin a push for changes of historical magnitude in the educational system of Texas.
The Visioning Institute was initially conceptualized by Keith Sockwell, past Superintendent of Northwest ISD and now with Plano ISD, just north of Dallas. The Institute eventually gathered support and co-sponsorships with the Texas Association of School Administrators, the Texas Leadership Center, and the SHW Group .
They have been meeting for nearly two years, but their work has not been widely heard about, published, or disseminated until very recently. They have now published what might best be termed a manifesto...a call to action which in some ways can be compared to a declaration of independence from over-regulation by state (and federal) entities. In fact, on page seven of the document they quote Thomas Jefferson's statement about the writing of the Declaration of Independence:
[A Moral Imperative: Why We as Public Education Leaders Must Speak and Act Now]..."not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before; but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take. Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion."
And setting the tone right from the beginning, immediately below the title you see:
"Respectfully Offered by Superintendent Participants in the Public Education Visioning Institute."
A free pdf download of the document is available from the TASA website or from www.tasanet.org/files/visioning/visioningfinal.pdf.
In many ways these thirty-five superintendents are not dissimilar from our country's forefathers in the courage they model by publishing their work. Superintendents work in a highly charged political arena and most go to great lengths to keep their personal opinions hidden from view and their politics close to their vests. There is nothing inflammatory within the forty-two pages, but there is also nothing safe about this document. It is a powerful statement from a group of educational leaders which may not sit well with certain power brokers. It is not unreasonable to say that this document could be a risk to the careers of each superintendent who signed-off on the final published product . But, as one superintendent told me, there is no longer any time to waste. The "moral imperative" of doing what is right for the children of Texas demands that changes be made at the highest levels of educational governance and influence.
Again, quoting from page seven:
"The framers of the Declaration of Independence provided inspiration for this monumental task we have felt compelled to undertake. While making no claim that this work is in any way comparable to their epic accomplishment, we have used what they did to inspire us, as a metaphor to frame our own efforts, and to reflect our deeply held belief in the assertion of Thomas Jefferson that learning is essential to liberty. So in that sense, we, like them, find that we can no longer keep quiet and to continue the injustices the present bureaucratic school system is imposing on our youth and their future."
The true beauty of the document is that it does not dodge, run from, or argue against the continued need for accountability and testing. The document does not call for an end to monitoring student achievement and holding staffs, schools, and districts accountable for results. It is how these results are defined and the means of accomplishing them which are the targets for change outlined in the forty-two page publication.
The Visioning Institute's "Declaration" consists of Six Articles. Under each Article, profound and positive changes to the educational system are outline and specific actions are recommended. Many of the objectives and actions will take significant effort and time to implement. Many will require a re-evaluation and new approach to issues at the upper levels of state governance.
The Six Articles are:
Article I: The New Digital Learning Environment
Article II: The New Learning Standards
Article III: Assessments for Learning
Article IV: Accountability for Learning
Article V: Organizational Transformation
Article VI: A More Balanced and Reinvigorated State/Local Partnership
Some of the goals set within these Articles will conflict with vested interests. Others will run counter to traditional bureaucratic thinking. But each has been well-considered, debated, negotiated, mediated, and ultimately agreed to by group consensus.
The purpose of this post is simply to urge all educators (and other visitors to LeaderTalk) to read the document. Then ask yourself what you can do to promote the ideas (and ideals) outlined under the Six Articles. The thirty-five superintendents have done their job. While the Visioning Institute will continue meeting, the real responsibility for implementing their manifesto now shifts to the trenches.
Our forefathers wrote the Declaration of Independence, but it was the average colonial citizen who fought for its ultimate acceptance, defense, and application. Parents, school staffs, PTAs, Lions Clubs, Rotary Clubs, Chambers of Commerce, churches, educational associations...as much of the public as possible must now learn of the publication and become familiar with the Visioning Institute's work and begin spreading the word and lobbying for its implementation.
There are FOUR ACTIONS we can take at this point:
Urge your school staff to download and read the document;
Promote the dissemination and reading of the publication to as wide an audience as possible through word-of-mouth, blogs, emails, phone calls, and other means;
Provide your input to the Institute (you will see how within the document itself); and
Begin a meaningful dialog with as many people as you can...working toward the implementation of the Institute's work at the local and state levels.
To the extent which each individual can, we should assist in meeting the challenge issued by the Institute's authors on page one of the document:
"Educators and parents have vital contributions to make and their insights and commitments should be utilized. We knew it was time to begin a new and different kind of dialog. We also felt that the only meaningful way to address the issues and challenge underlying assumptions was to define and express a vision, based on relevant beliefs, principles, and premises.
Our urgent desire is that this document be used to begin disciplined dialog, stimulate questions, identify problems, and frame issues that will eventually lead to strategic actions at the local level and in governmental capitols."
The collective talent and experience pool of the readers of LeaderTalk is tremendous. The input that each of you could provide to this "disciplined dialog" would be invaluable to the Visioning Institute's effort. For the best way to participate, do not leave comments here, rather, follow the suggestions provided within the document itself. As noted at the front of the publication:
"This edition reflects a revised document format from the initial printing, specifically including space for reader reflections, questions and recommended revisions or additions. Comments may be submitted to any of the contacts listed on the acknowledgment page."
I know the majority of us agree that the time has come to challenge the status quo and the arbitrary mandates (funded and unfunded), laws, policies, and practices which have blurred the vision and derailed the mission of American Education. This may be the opportunity many of us have been waiting for...
"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." -- Margaret Mead
 Disclosure: The SHW Group continues to provide financial support of the Visioning Institute, but they neither seek - nor have - any input or influence regarding the content of any work products coming forward from the Institute.
 Disclosure: I have had professional working relationships with four members of the Institute, including one which is a personal friendship of over thirty years.